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Obituaries

Bill Thomas; Costume Designer Won Oscar for 'Spartacus'

June 02, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Thomas, motion picture costume designer who earned an Academy Award for dressing Jean Simmons in "Spartacus" and was so versatile he could garb Judy Garland as a clown in "The Pirate," Angela Lansbury as a ragtag witch in "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and Lana Turner as a high fashion grande dame in "By Love Possessed," has died. He was 79.

Thomas, who died Tuesday at his home in Beverly Hills, had suffered three heart attacks since January and had been repeatedly hospitalized over the past few months, said Greg Lingo, a spokesman for Thomas' attorney, Frank D. Peck.

A Chicago native who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Thomas gravitated to Hollywood because of his love of design and theatrical costumes. He dressed hundreds of stars and thousands of supporting actors and extras in nearly 300 motion pictures over his long career.

Besides winning the Oscar for costumes in the 1960 "Spartacus," starring Kirk Douglas as a revolutionary slave challenging the Roman legions, Thomas was nominated for his designs in several other motion pictures--"Inside Daisy Clover," "The Hawaiians," "Babes in Toyland," "Seven Thieves," "Bon Voyage," "Ship of Fools," "The Happiest Millionaire," "Toys in the Attic" and "Bedknobs and Broomsticks."

His versatility in creating contemporary, period or fantasy costumes was attributable in part to his early apprenticeship to Irene, the famed MGM stylist, and to historical costume designer Walter Plunkett, who dressed the cast of "Gone With the Wind."

In 1968, he became the first recipient of the annual "Waggy" award presented by the Western Accessories Group for "his consistent development of the most chic and tasteful fashion accessories in the motion picture industry."

Thomas demonstrated a flair for the elegant--such as the costumes for Turner, whom he first met during shooting of "Green Dolphin Street" in 1941.

"Lana Turner was the most clothes-conscious star I ever worked with," Thomas told The Times in 1988. "She knew fabric and color, and what worked for her, like nobody I ever met."

Thomas' imagination reached into the future as well, as illustrated by his 23rd century costumes for the science fiction movie "Logan's Run" and its television spinoff series.

The designer dressed both men and women--Marlon Brando, George C. Scott, Bill Cosby, John Wayne, Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Charlton Heston; and Greer Garson, Jane Fonda, Deborah Kerr, Faye Dunaway, Shelley Winters, Simone Signoret, Julie Andrews and Geraldine Page.

Period costumes never fazed him. He regally gowned a half-century of first ladies, played by Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Lee Grant and Eileen Heckart, among others, for the Emmy-winning television miniseries "Backstairs at the White House."

Because of the wide range of his own designs and a zealous interest in costumes and accessories used in Hollywood, Thomas became a collector (once owning a pair of the ruby slippers worn by Garland in "Wizard of Oz") and a consultant at auctions of movie memorabilia. He was even asked to advise investors about current and potential value of specific items. In 1990, he estimated that a pair of the authentic 1939 ruby slippers worn by Garland as Dorothy could surpass $1 million in the future.

Thomas also became a respected advisor to people who wanted to dress well, whether or not they were in the movie business.

"One dramatic accessory is enough," he said in 1968 when asked by The Times to advise readers. "Her other accessories should be restrained. If more than one outstanding accessory is worn it not only detracts from the others, but overpowers the woman. In fact, to 'never over-accessorize' is the first law of being well-dressed."

On style, he observed that ". . . too many women allow their clothing to wear them. Fashion should only complement the woman. The greatest compliment a woman can receive is 'How nice you look,' not 'What a terrific hat, coat, dress, etc.' "

Thomas, who had dressed an alligator, costumed four chimps and made trees walk, even provided some yardsticks for Halloween costumes. His first rule: "Don't rent a costume. Half the fun is the pleasure you get from your own cleverness."

He suggested buying in thrift shops, joke stores or hardware stores to become, for example, a penguin--black tails from a thrift shop, black stocking on the head, white face makeup, black cardboard nose. Or Mickey Mouse or a hamburger or a poppy or a vacation trip, starting with the appropriate color leotard, then adding cardboard or crepe paper embellishments.

Although he did not establish his own couture label, Thomas was commissioned to create personal wardrobes for celebrities who admired his Hollywood work, including actress Kim Novak and singer Helen Reddy.

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